"The perennial dramas of the East": Representations of the Middle East in the Writing and Art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt

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Mason, Deanna
Pre-Raphaelites , Orientalism , Rossetti, Dante Gabriel , Hunt, William Holman
This dissertation studies depictions of the Middle East in the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. My discussion focuses on two prominent members of the Brotherhood—Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt—and utilizes an interdisciplinary approach that examines the poetry, prose, unpublished correspondence and journals, sketches, watercolours, and oil paintings that they produced prior to 1856. I argue that Rossetti and Hunt make use of the Middle East as a repository for and reflection of the ambiguities and ambivalences of their own positions as avant-garde artists and authors. Chapters Two and Three focus on the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Chapter Two examines Rossetti’s juvenilia in order to trace the ways in which the young author-artist uses the Middle East as a platform from which to work out the interplay between narrative and image, the conceptualization of the role of the author and artist, and the use of realistically depicted elements in religious painting. Chapter Three continues this discussion of Rossetti through an investigation of the 1850 edition of his poem “The Burden of Nineveh,” which centres on an encounter with an ancient Assyrian statue, and I argue that Rossetti links this artifact to the P. R. B. and uses it to critique the artistic ideals of mid-nineteenth-century England. The next two chapters shift to an investigation of William Holman Hunt’s first visit to the Middle East in 1854-6, a journey that became a focal point of the author-artist’s career. Chapter Four makes extensive use of Hunt’s unpublished diaries and letters from his sojourn in the Holy Land to destabilize the widespread conception of the artist as a staunch imperialist and the foremost English religious painter of the nineteenth century. Building on this foundation, Chapter Five looks back to the three months that Hunt spent in Egypt in 1854 and investigates the ways in which the complex experiences that the author-artist describes in his unpublished letters from this period filter into the watercolours, sketches, and oil paintings that he executed in Egypt.
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